Benjamin Netanyahu is now in the fight of his turbulent political life. The stakes for Israel’s prime minister could hardly be greater. His continuance in office, his own reputation, his legacy, his immunity from prosecution on various corruption charges, and possibly jail are all at play.
Israel’s political history is marked by volatility. But few moments since the proclamation of the Jewish State in 1948 have involved such high drama in attempts to form a government.
Netanyahu’s failure this week to get the numbers for a coalition that would withstand challenge on the floor of the Knesset means Israel will go back to the polls on September 17.
This will be a re-run of elections in April. But this does not mean Israeli voters, fed-up with the melodrama surrounding Netanyahu’s alleged corruption, his attempts to secure immunity from prosecution, and now a political meltdown, will return the same result.
If they do not, Israel may find itself gripped by another lengthy period of uncertainty as various players, including Netanyahu, seek to forge a coalition that would command a Knesset majority.
All this political upheaval also vastly complicates attempts by the Trump administration to advance a Middle East peace process in what Donald Trump himself has described as the “deal of the century”.
His son-in-law Jared Kushner’s plans to convene a peace forum in Bahrain in June to discuss the outline of a possible way forward may be curtailed.
The event was in trouble anyway. Palestinian representatives would not attend, nor would Palestinian business figures from the diaspora.
Representatives from Gulf states, and further afield from countries like Morocco, might question attending when a caretaker Israeli government is living on borrowed time.
What is remarkable in all this is that just a few months ago, Netanyahu was being acclaimed as a political maestro after managing to win what appeared to be his fourth term in office.
He would become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.
When his nationalist Likud Party won 35 Knesset seats out of 120, it was assumed he would comfortably get the numbers to form a government in alliance with other parties of the right. This includes the powerful ultra-orthodox religious bloc.
But as the days and weeks passed, such an outcome began to seem more problematic. So it proved.
What eventually stymied his attempt to build a majority was disagreement over what has long been one of the most contentious issues in Israeli politics.
That issue is the exemption accorded ultra-Orthodox men from serving in the military. A new law had been proposed that would set modest quotas for the enlistment of ultra-Orthodox males.
Netanyahu’s prospective coalition partner, Avigdor Lieberman of the ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, insisted this requirement be adhered to. But ultraorthodox components of a coalition refused to compromise.
In essence, Israel’s attempts to form a government foundered on this issue.
However, beyond the military exemption issue it is also clear that political rivalry and personal differences between Netanyahu and Lieberman stymied a compromise.
Former allies on the Israeli right – Lieberman had served as foreign minister and defence minister in Netanyahu-led governments – the two are now locked in a bitter personal standoff. This will overshadow the election campaign.
Lieberman insists his motives are simply to secure passage of the military exemptions law, in fairness to secular Israelis who bear the burden of defending the homeland. However, his published remarks indicate a broader purpose. He said in a Facebook post:
I am for the state of Israel. I am for a Jewish state, but I am against a state based on Jewish religious law.
By forcing an election re-run, Lieberman’s gambit is also being seen in Israel as a direct leadership challenge posed to a weakened Netanyahu, compromised by bribery allegations.
Nahum Barnea, a columnist for the Yediot Ahronot, puts it this way:
He is seizing leadership. He wants to prove that despite Netanyahu taking him for granted he, with his five seats, can cause turmoil.
Chief beneficiary of this bitter family feud on the right is the so-called Blue and White alignment of the centre, led by former army chief Benny Gantz.
Gantz’s alignment won the same number of seats as Likud in the Knesset elections in April, but could not marshal sufficient backing on the left to match Netanyahu’s support on the religious right.
Gantz also proved to be an awkward political campaigner against the seasoned Netanyahu. Presumably, he will be more accomplished this time.
Another wild card in events in the Middle East these days are the actions of the Trump administration. Since his election in 2016, Trump has signalled that he would accommodate Netanyahu’s nationalist impulses.
He broke with all his presidential predecessors in his pledge to relocate the American embassy to West Jerusalem. In the process, he did not acknowledge Palestinian claims to East Jerusalem as their capital.
Provocatively, he has also recognised Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights. He has not questioned Israel’s settlement activities in the West Bank.
Unlike his predecessors, he has accommodated one of the most nationalist governments in Israel’s history. The question becomes what he might consider doing to save it.